This is an excerpt from Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief, which is available

Chapter 2: The Stroke of Time

Rocky began to measure time by how many sleeps we had left before we’d see each other again. A week before he arrived in Maine in early December 2006, he instant messaged me on Skype and wrote, only seven more sleeps, Sis; only six more sleeps, Sis, until finally, it was only one more sleep till we’d see each other again. It would be his first trip home since his move to Bali in May 2005. None of us had seen him for a year and a half. Excitement buzzed in my family as we made plans and juggled our schedules as if royalty were flying in.

Mom and Dad picked up Rocky at the airport, while the rest of us wrapped up our day and convened at my parents’ for a huge pasta feed. When I embraced my brother, I was beside myself with relief. He looked as he had when we Skyped: radiant, tanned, and happy. Maybe this woman he was dating had saved him. He was the brother I knew before the divorce, the cocaine, and the deep sadness. I rested my head against the soft cotton of his sky-blue Tommy Bahama shirt. He ran his hand down my back and said what he always said, “I love you, Sis.”

I soaked the neck of his shirt, leaving black streaks of mascara. “It will come out,” I said.

He smiled. “It’s OK. I have three more just like it.”

My Italian mother had all her chicks back in the nest, putting her heart in great danger of imploding with joy. She made Rocky’s favorite meal. As we listened to him paint exotic pictures of Bali through his detailed stories, we twirled long strips of linguine around our forks, bit into hot Italian sausages and meatballs, sop- ping up the red sauce with thick, fat pieces of bread laced with garlic butter, and refilled thin-stemmed wine glasses with cabernet sauvignon.

Happiness oozed from the glint in Rocky’s eyes, and there was real passion in his voice as he shared stories about his girlfriend Setiawan, the color of the Indian Ocean, the monkeys, the paddies at the Tegallal and Rice Terraces in Ubud, the luxurious Four Seasons Resorts in Jimbaran Bay, nestled on the oceanfront, and the other in Sayan, Ubud, hidden in the lush paradise beside the Ayung River. Bali had become his home. We laughed, interrupted, and talked over each other as we had before marriages, before divorces, as we had when we were young, sharing space, time, and blood. I had the urge to pluck batteries from the ticking clocks, corral my family, and tuck them all inside a bubble to stop time and keep them safe.

“Tell us more about Setiawan,” my mother said, as she heaped more meatballs onto Rocky’s plate.

“I’ve never met anyone like her,” he said. “I wish I could have brought her with me. She’s gorgeous.”

“Can you bring her to Kevin’s wedding?” Mom asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a great idea.” My youngest brother Kevin was getting married in September. Rocky was the Best Man, and I was going to officiate.

“We can’t afford it,” he said. “Maybe next year.”

My mother and I looked at each other with a shared knowledge that he was planning for the future with this woman, a woman he had definitely fallen in love with.


Rocky’s ten days home melted away like snow on a rooftop during a warm March day. Though we all begged him to switch his flights and stay through Christmas, he said, “I’d do anything to stay, but it’s our busiest time of year at the resorts. Both sites are at capacity.” He didn’t mention it, but I knew he wanted to spend the holidays with Setiawan.

While my brother flew the 10,000 miles back to Bali on the seventeenth, my father called 911. My mother had slumped over in a chair. She suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain. It was possible she would not make it through the night.

Hours earlier, Mom called to discuss Christmas dinner and the tenderloin and lobster tails she ordered. She also talked about Rocky and how anxious she was to hear that he had landed safely, but I was too busy to listen. I was in the middle of critiquing my fellow students’ manuscripts in my MFA program. I cut her off and said, “I’ll call you later, Mom. I have to get these done.”

My winter residency would begin in early January, but I wouldn’t call Mom later nor would I attend my second semester. The day after Mom’s stroke, I called the director of the MFA program, hysterical, as I told her that my mother was in the ICU, and I didn’t know if she would survive. “I have to drop out,” I said. “I hope I can come back in the summer.” Even as I said the words, I watched my dream fly out of my life as quickly as it had flown in. I didn’t know what the future held for my mother or me but pursuing an MFA in fiction seemed frivolous and irrelevant. Still, an ache expanded in my chest.

Meanwhile, after Rocky landed in Indonesia and received the news, he jumped on another flight back to Maine without any of his luggage that somehow never made it on the connecting flight to Bali. When he landed thirty hours later, the only pieces of clothing he had with him were the jeans and gray sweater he flew home in and a suit he purchased at the airport, believing he’d be attending my mother’s funeral. For ten days, he wore my father’s clothes, which were at least two sizes too big.

Though Rocky was the second to the youngest in our family of five children, he had the ability to calm us all down with his humor and charm. He lightened the heaviness in the room by telling us stories about his adventures, making jokes, or devising a plan of who should do what. He was the perfect person to accompany me on a dreaded trip through Walmart two days after my mother’s stroke. We had to pick up several items Mom would need while she was in the hospital. The majority of my siblings and in-laws didn’t think my mother would survive. Her brain continued to swell as she fought for her life in the ICU at Maine Medical Center. But I knew in my bones that she’d survive, and I told Rocky, “We have to buy her clothing for rehab.”

Despite his lack of sleep and sixty hours of travel, he remained optimistic, reassuring me that whatever we had left of Mom post-stroke would be better than not having her at all. Ten years earlier, I worked as a medical social worker in an acute brain injury rehabilitation facility. I understood what a left-sided stroke stole: memory, language, partial vision, and the ability to cook. I was numb, in shock, and at a loss as to what my role in our family would now become.

Our mother was the nucleus of our family, the one who planned holidays, birthdays, and all other special events. She was a feisty, outgoing Italian who reveled in all those activities she’d no longer be able to do, like whipping up huge pasta feeds, calling her children every evening for long conversations, typing my father’s surveys, and playing Family Feud on her computer. Yes, I thought, we’d be OK with what was left of our mother, but would she? And where will you be when we help Mom and Dad pick up the pieces of their life, Rocky? You’ll be on the other side of the globe. I pushed these thoughts aside, relieved that he’d be with us through Christmas, my fortieth birthday, and New Year’s.

As we made our way through the women’s department in a daze, throwing sweatpants, T-shirts, and hoodies into the cart, Rocky spent his time choosing the tackiest clothing from the rack and asked, “Think Mom would like this?” And we both erupted into laughter. In the shampoo aisle, I dropped a bottle of Pearl on the floor and sobbed. “What if she doesn’t make it?” I asked.

Rocky hugged me and said again, “It’s going to be OK, Sis.”

My younger brother, ten inches taller, held me up. I felt the weight of the trauma between us as the future of our family crumbled, like an old decrepit chimney. For now, he was home, and I let myself collapse against his chest.

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susan casey

Susan E. Casey, MSW, MFA, is an author, a licensed mental health clinician, a certified bereavement group facilitator, and a certified life coach. Throughout the past 25 years, Susan has worked in hospice, in-patient, and home-based settings with teens and adults, and taught numerous courses to executive leaders and clinicians. Currently, Susan works for a measurement-based care organization, providing clinical coaching to therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists countrywide to improve mental health outcomes for youth and adults. Susan’s blog on her website,, chronicles her grieving process following the death of her younger brother. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including first place in the PEN/Nob Hill Literary Contest and Green Writer’s National Literary Contest. Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Grief is her first work of nonfiction published on February 14, 2020 by Library Tales Publishing. Both Susan’s professional and creative work have been guided by her deep belief that every individual has purpose and inherent strengths and deserves the opportunity to reach their own unique potential. Susan lives in Maine with her husband Steve and golden retriever Indy.

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